Haiyan: stories from the first responders

As days passed after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines in November 2013, the news focused on the death toll and the magnitude of destruction. Meanwhile, emergency first responders and rescue teams tried to focus on saving lives. I will try to withhold any opinions I have about things written below. Instead, I present stories of people from the first medical teams on the ground.

Emergency first responders from the United States Marines, Mammoth Medical Missions, and Team Rubicon told their stories during the Talakayan sa Pasuguan entitled Haiyan: The Perspective of First Responders hosted by the Embassy on 16 January 2013.

Col. Christopher Starling of the US Marines; Dr. Michael Karch, CEO of Mammoth Medical Missions; and Lourdes Tiglao of Team Rubicon spoke of the challenges they faced being first on the ground.

The medical teams from Mammoth Medical Missions and Team Rubicon, made up of military veterans, treated patients who suffered from head lacerations, crush wounds, and those who needed to be amputated. They did these on little sleep and little food.

“We knew the first 72 to 100 hours would be uncovered. We knew it would be an austere and difficult environment. We were self sustaining for five days. We had to cut our caloric intake to 800 calories. The Geneva Convention requires a prisoner of war to have at least 1,800 calories a day. We were at 800,” said Karch.

According to Tiglao, a Filipina and US Armed Forces Veteran deployed in Tanauan, Leyte, those who were injured still found a way to put the needs of others first.

“The strength and resiliency of the Filipino people are incredible. Even the injured were putting the needs of others before their own, and sometimes this took a toll on them, said Tiglao.

Lessons from the ground

The panelists also used the Talakayan as a venue to impart lessons learned from Typhoon Haiyan.

“The Chinese symbol for crisis is divided into two – risk and opportunity. Every crisis situation has an amount of risk, but also opportunity. There is an enormous amount of opportunity to teach in the Philippines and Southeast Asia,” said Karch.

He also talked about how the first responders found and made use of opportunities presented to them. In the midst of a water shortage, semi trucks became water source in Tanauan, which is a bottling factory for Pepsi. Water was tapped from roofs. Resources from a fire truck helped them continue their work.

“Firetrucks are a gold mine in a mass casualty event. Firemen take care of their equipment – gas tank is always full, the tank is full of water, and the battery is always charged. We converted the battery as a source of AC power,” Karch explained.

“We turned over dressers and made them into additional operating tables. We performed surgeries on the mayor’s table,” he added.

In times of crisis, information is just as important as resources like food, water, and shelter.

“There was a need for information. Information from certain places was not getting to where it was supposed to—to the World Health Organization, Department of Health, and other state organizations,” said Tiglao.

To get the information they needed and to get to otherwise inaccessible places, Team Rubicon traded supplies with locals.

“We learned that in a crisis situation, money is useless. We used the barter system. It is not just resources that are important but also good will. Showing someone that you genuinely want to help rather than just furthering your organization’s mission will get you a long way,” said Tiglao.

Positivity and small victories

To keep spirits up, the responders focused on small victories, saving lives, and giving life.

“In a mass casualty event, babies are going to keep coming. Having an obstetrician in your forward surgical team is imperative. We were bringing life out of death. News agencies were focusing on how many died. People on the ground were focusing on life,” said Karch.

People on the ground also focused on making sure those who survived remained safe. It is common for disease to breakout after a disaster of this magnitude. However, this was not the case during Haiyan.

“There was no massive disease breakout after this tragedy. A pandemic or outbreak of disease is usually seen in the aftermath of such an event. That didn’t happen. This was the result of hard work and planning from the government of the Philippines and other aid agencies,” said Starling.

“We were there to assess the situation, save lives, evacuate the ill and injured, provide food, water, and shelter, resupply water, and enable logistics by opening up roads, waterways, and airports. After that, the Philippine government was able to say ‘we’ve got this,’” he added.

Violence and crime tend to escalate during disasters. The first responders tried to lead by example in order to quell violence.

“People were hungry. We learned that if you assure them that they will get their share of food, people are willing to line up and wait their turn,” said Tiglao.

“We saw that the more that we worked, the more they worked. This little nugget of positivity spread throughout the town. We heard about incidents of violence elsewhere, but we did not hear of any where we were,” said Karch.

Shoulder to shoulder

Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia expressed his gratitude for the work done by the first responders.

“I cannot overestimate the important role played by these first responders in helping save the lives of many  Filipinos. On behalf of the people of the Philippines, I extend to Col. Starling, Lt. Col. Camunag, Dr. Karch, Ms. Tiglao and those they represent, the gratitude of the people of the Philippines and our prayers that the Lord may strengthen you as you continue your life-saving work around the world,” said Ambassador Cuisia.

According to Tiglao, building and keeping relationships with the government, military, and other organizations will help make responses to future disasters quicker and more effective. Col. Starling emphasized this by saying, “Anytime we’re needed, we’ll be there shoulder to shoulder with our Philippine counterparts.”

Col. Christopher Starling, Lourdes Tiglao, and Dr. Michael Karch share their stories during "Haiyan: The Perspective of the First Responders" forum hosted by the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.

Col. Christopher Starling, Lourdes Tiglao, and Dr. Michael Karch share their stories during “Haiyan: The Perspective of the First Responders” forum hosted by the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.

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Things I learned, unlearned, and relearned from yoga

Over the last few months, I’ve fallen deeply in love with yoga.

My first exposure to the asana practice or the physical aspect of yoga was in high school when I started following a yoga exercise video my mom received for Christmas. I liked it for the stretches and balancing poses which complemented my dance and figure skating, and later on for stress relief. I attended studio classes occasionally as they were far and pricey. For many people, myself included for a long time, “yoga” conjures images of a studio, being barefoot, being on a mat in a downward facing dog. But asana or the physical practice is one of eight limbs of yoga.

When I moved to the US, I was surrounded by yoga studios. After trying studios here and there, I found Yoga District, the one that felt like a fit, felt like home. Aside from their non-profit mission, I love their holistic approach to yoga philosophy. The words holistic, yoga, and philosophy may have connotations people don’t want to deal with. But if you really look into yoga philosophy, it’s not very different from basic teachings of major world religions or even things you learned as a child.


Take yama for example–we learn young that stealing, lying, cheating, and harming others are bad. When we start going to school or take up a hobby or sport, we see the value of niyama–self study, dedication, austerity and self discipline. I know I was a lot better at detaching and being aware when I was younger, but I lost sight of these somewhere along the way. Now I’m coming to realize that asana is probably the easiest limb of yoga. I can practice over an hour when I have a teacher telling me what to do. Being kind and treating others with utmost respect and reverence is a lot more challenging. As for sitting still in uninterrupted meditation, well, I’m getting there. As one of my favorite yoga teachers says, “The poses alone don’t mean anything. They won’t make you a kinder person.” And another one says, “Practicing kindness also means being kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself on your mat. Thank yourself for showing up and know that all you do on your mat is perfect.”


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To everything there is a season

I have always loved summer – a tropical girl through and through. My curls thrive in humidity, and I breathe easy with some moisture in the air. I love being under the sun, and I would rather sweat than shiver. But alas, the seasons are changing. The temperature is dropping. Days are getting shorter. Apples are dominating farmers’ markets and soon so will pumpkins. It won’t be long before leaves start falling.

Last year, my first time to experience the change in seasons, the arrival of autumn meant switching from sandals to boots, putting on the fall coat, and immersing myself in the funny world called grad school. Grad school also explains the six-month blogging dry spell. This time, the new season brings new opportunities and new beginnings.

I moved from Arlington to the District. I started volunteer work I love and soon will start a job involving doing something I love. I joined a yoga community of like-minded individuals. But there are still big, life-changing decisions that need to be made. I find comfort not in the need to decide but in having choices. I am grateful I have equally amazing options.

To everything there is a season. Leaves turn brown and fall when it’s time. The air becomes crisp when it’s time. Everything falls into place in its own time. Summer will always be my favorite time of the year, but there’s no reason I can’t love autumn. Here’s to all the beautiful things the new season is yet to bring.

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Spicing it up in my last month in Zanzibar

One of my favorite things about working in Creative Solutions is the constant interaction with the local community. The compound is right in the middle of Mangapwani Village. My afternoon bike ride is always punctuated with familiar faces–students, teachers, and acquaintances saying hello and sometimes even inviting me into their homes or workplaces.

Mr. Abdulla, the oldest of my students in the English night class, owns Kilimani Farm, a spice farm roughly a kilometer from where I live. He has been inviting me for the past few weeks, and I finally found time to swing by.

When in Zanzibar, a spice tour is virtually obligatory. Zanzibar was once the main producer of cloves and other spices for the rest of Africa. Although the islands play a more minor role in the world spice market today, spices still make up a large part of Zanzibar’s economy. Also, Zanzibari cuisine uses a lot of spices, with Arabs and Indians having left their indelible gastronomic mark.


Kilimani Farm is not as large as most spice farms, but it definitely has its charm. The path to the vegetable patch is lined by a canopy of trees entwined by vines of vanilla. Rainy season has started and most of the farmers are busy planting rice. But at its busiest, Kilimani grows aloe vera, aubergine, bell pepper, coconut, garlic, onion, passion fruit, spinach, watermelon, and zucchini, to name a few. All are grown organically. Some of the produce are brought to nearby markets and the rest are sold to local hotels.

Rahma, a former Creative Solutions student, toured me around the fruit and vegetable patches and taught me how to make organic fertilizer. What I found most interesting is how they make organic pesticide. A mixture of garlic, ginger, lime, and neem diluted in water and fermented is not only potent enough to keep away unwanted bugs but also powerful enough to burst through a plastic container if shaken.


The spice tour was given by the nephew of Mr. Abdulla who was very well versed on the uses of various plants, herbs, and spices. All spice, cinnamon, coffee, turmeric, vanilla, clove, aloe vera, anato (known locally in the Philippines as achuete), cardamom, passion fruit, henna tree, and the iodine tree were the stars of the show.

After the tour, Mr. Abdulla brought me home to meet his wife, two daughters, and niece. I was served cake and coconut juice fresh off the tree.

Mr. Abdulla, like all students in Creative Solutions, enrolled voluntarily. My students have different reasons for wanting to learn English–to keep up with lessons in school, to land a good job, to improve their language skills because their work requires interaction with tourists. Mr. Abdulla’s reasons for learning English were to keep abreast of latest farming techniques (most seminars are given by foreigners) and to teach his children English. He once told us that he was so happy to have picked up enough of the language to learn organic farming. He said he was probably the only farmer in the seminars who understood the foreign speakers.

Getting to know students outside the classroom is always an enlightening experience. In the case of Mr. Abdulla, a humbling and motivating one. I witnessed how learning English changed his life. His farm is productive and is soon to be a tourist attraction. It provides livelihood for Mr. Abdulla and other farmers, and has helped send his daughters to school. Mr. Abdulla and his family live simply but comfortably in a clean, spacious house, and there is always enough to eat. Also, Kilimani is the perfect model for organic farming. Knowing the health hazards of chemical farming on consumers and farmers, Mr. Abdulla hopes more farms go organic.

Mr. Abdulla has told me repeatedly after classes, “We congratulate you for your teaching. We talk about how good you are on our way home after class.” These words along with the progress the night students have made has kept me going all these weeks. Actually seeing the impact of teaching has made on the life of a student is motivation enough for me to work through my last month in Zanzibar.


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Anatomy of a shamba

Welcome to the shamba, also known as a rural village or the countryside.

Following the Swahili rule of adding the prefix m to a place to denote a resident of that area, a mshamba is someone who resides in a rural village. However, mshamba is also used to describe a hick or someone provincial and uncouth.

To get to and from the shamba, most people use the dala-dala, a mode of public transportation often in the form of battered Toyota Hiace minivans or converted light trucks. The vehicle got its name from dala-dala barkers who would shout “dollar, dollar,” an amount of 5 shillings which was the standard fare back in the day.

Whether on the dala-dala, in a car, or on a bicycle, you will most likely meet ngombe or cows on the road. These ngombe will either be pulling a cart in the middle of the bara-bara (main road) or grazing by the roadside. Shamba ngombe can eat grass all day, and sometimes they even chew on banana trees. Beware of ngombe hanging out near your bedroom window in the evening. Their loud and invasive mooing is bound to keep you up all night.

Another nocturnal friend, or foe if its blood-curdling scream happens to keep you up at night, is the komba or bushbaby. Although small in size, komba have huge eyes which give it bionic eyesight at night. They can also balance on electric wires and jump up to two meters high.

Should you happen to have a sleepless night, fret not for fresh mkate is coming your way. The bread vendor makes his round at around breakfast time. His distinct yell is the harbinger of bofalo goodness.

If bofalo, a small loaf of bread resembling a baguette, does not suit your taste, head over to the corner duka for an assortment of mikate.

There is no shortage of morning carbohydrates in the shamba. The list of mikate goes on and on, but the following are most commonly found in my side of the shamba.

There’s chapati, a thin pancake of unleavened whole-grain bread cooked on a griddle. Also round and flat is mkate wa ufuta or sesame bread. Mandazi, probably the most common bread in East Africa, is fluffy and triangular-shaped. When fried, it takes on a deep orange color and resembles a doughnut.

Should you need something hot to wash your breakfast down, head to a neighborhood baraza (literally a receiving or sitting area for guests) for some piping hot kahawa (coffee) or chai (tea) often served with a chunk of sugared cashew nuts.

By noon, barazas serve the ubiquitous chips kuku—fried chicken, potato fries, and a salad (often thinly sliced lettuce, cucumber, and tomatoes with lime and salt). Another popular dish is chips mayai (potato fries omelette) served with ketchup or chili tomato sauce.

In the early evening, you can sometimes hear crowds cheering in the street. Don’t be alarmed. It’s just supporters of the winning team going home from a football game in the neighborhood field.

Power outages are unpredictable in the shamba. Should there be one, you can expect dozens of washamba (plural of mshamba) to take to the side streets, chatting under the moonlight, playing music as loud as their mobile phones can blast them, and waiting for a few seconds of light from cars passing by.

There is no nightlife to speak of in the shamba, but take time to look at the stars. Their numbers and their brilliance are mesmerizing.

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White foreigners and chocolate babies

Mzungu is a word foreigners will probably hear the most while in southern, central, or eastern Africa. Strictly speaking, a mzungu is a white European. However, it has become a term used to refer to white foreigners or sometimes even foreigners in general, Afro-Europeans and Afro-Americans included.

Mzungu stems from the word zungua which means to turn, to wander, to travel, or to be tiresome. The term was first reported by 19th century European missionaries who thought mzungu meant clever, wondrous, or extraordinary.

Although people in the village are generally friendly, it’s tough being different. I stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t look African and I don’t dress like a Zanzibari. The children definitely take great delight in making me feel different.

I went through an identity crisis during my first month in Zanzibar. I often lose count of how many times I get called mzungu on the kilometer bike ride to school. It’s usually the same four children who run to the road and shout “mzuuuungu” when I pass. My first thought is always: seriously, me white?! Followed by: don’t your parents have anything better for you to do?

In Zanzibari lingo, all Asians are mchina. I’ve been called that as well. I don’t know what I prefer–to be called white or to be called Chinese.

During one of my afternoon bike rides, a child shouted “ni hao” when I passed. Another time, I heard a student say “mchina! Shing wa ching wa,” which I suppose was his impression of a Chinese dialect. A+ for effort, F for Geography and conduct.

Foreigners are not such a novelty in town, and it’s unlikely that you’ll hear someone shout mzungu. It’s quite likely, however, for young female foreigners to receive marriage proposals. An important lesson I learned early on: to avoid suitors, just say you’re married.

While in Stone Town one weekend, a shopkeeper asked if I was married. I said I was and that my husband was working back in the Philippines.
Guy: Do you like cappuccino?
Me: (confused) Yes, I like cappuccino.
Guy: We can make cappuccino babies. Chocolate babies.
Me: I told you, I have a husband.
Guy: But he’s in the Philippines. We can make chocolate babies here.


Despite being a victim of racism and extreme identity crisis, I console myself by thinking of other worse things I can be called. I’m glad the Maasai word for Europeans didn’t stick. In the 1800′s, upon seeing trouser-wearing European invaders from the north, the people of the Maasai tribe called white people iloridaa enjekat–those who confine their farts.

When I’m in a good mood, I use the line my friend Maggie taught me. “Sio mzungu. Natumia Color Light!” (I’m not a mzungu. I just use Color Light [a popular local whitening product]). The kids always end up looking confused but it sure makes their mothers laugh.

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Being a teacher in Zanzibar

As published on Rappler, February 23, 2013

After living in the US for a semester, coming to Zanzibar was like coming home. At first glance, Zanzibar could pass as an island on the Philippines.

It has dala-dalas, battered Toyota Hiace minivans, that serve as the main mode of public transportation. It has a central market that sells produce, meat, hard plastic ware, pirated 32-in-1 DVDs, and everything in between.

Villages have dukas (sari-sari stores) and neighborhood bread men who yell“mikate” (Swahili for bread), much like how balut vendors have their distinct annunciation. The weather is almost the same. However, there are few things more oppressive than the noontime Zanzibari sun.

Despite the similarities, nothing could have fully prepared me for working in Africa. As a requirement for grad school, I’m doing volunteer work with an NGO in Mangapwani Village. Half of my work involves conducting teacher training and overseeing environmental clubs in nearby schools.

I was told there are two speeds on the island—pole-pole (slowly) and stop. Any progress, no matter how pole-pole is progress enough. Push too hard and things come to a stop.

Keeping those words of wisdom in mind, I did my initial observation of a grade three class. I had my work cut out. The students did everything entirely through rote memory. For 45 minutes, they recited the same five sentences about hygiene over and over again. The teacher ended class by singing “I am wash my hands.”

It’s not uncommon for students to graduate high school being able to recite paragraphs in English without knowing what they mean. Classes taught in Swahili also rely on memorization, and corporal punishment is practiced.

Some teachers in Zanzibar attend seminars for the sitting fee. But since seminars are in English, they are of little use. The headmistress of Mangapwani School told me, “We cannot teach well because we don’t have funds.”

I’ve always had high respect for Filipino teachers, but even more so now. All I could think of were students in rural Philippines who walk kilometers to get to a school with no desks and their teachers who find ways to make do with resources they have.

But teachers in Zanzibar cannot be blamed. They teach how they were taught. The Tanzanian government dictates the syllabi and makes the exams. Since test results are used to gauge how well a school is doing and sometimes how much funding a school gets, there is a lot of pressure on teachers.

Teacher training has been challenging, but learning Swahili helped. The teachers still giggle at my pronunciation, but they are putting much more effort into learning after seeing the effort I put into my Swahili. Pole-pole, slowly but surely.

Home and the other half of work are in Creative Solutions, a grassroots NGO which serves as a preschool, a school for English and Computer, a livelihood center, and a place where art is created and shared. Their philosophy is “Each one, teach one.” Everything we learn, we must share.


Zawadi, Asha, and Haji–giving back to their local community

I handle the English night class. Last week we went stargazing before they had to write a descriptive paragraph of the night sky. All the talk on heavenly bodies eventually led to the realization by one of the students that we live on the planet and not in it. It a while before he accepted that beneath the Earth’s crust is dense rock and not human beings.

Questions like “Why don’t we fall off the planet?” and “Why is the ocean blue?” came up. Great questions but not the easiest to answer given their foundation in Science. Moments like these make me want to pull my hair in frustration over the Tanzanian educational system. At the same time moments like these, when hungry minds long to be fed, serve as a reminder of how much I love teaching.

Some day students started a puppet theater and have acting gigs around the island. The main character is played by Maggie, a 24-year old girl who came to Creative Solutions two years ago not being able to read Swahili and not knowing a word of English. Now she is proficient in both languages and helps write scripts and songs for their plays. According to Maggie, “If you really want to learn, you can teach yourself anything.”

Maggie working on a mosaic in Creative Solutions

Maggie working on a mosaic in Creative Solutions

Despite having been here for over a month, there are still many things that confuse me about Zanzibari culture. It seems the more I explore the island, the more I notice such striking contrasts.

I will probably never understand how a man and a woman cannot be seen holding hands in public, but no one has a problem grabbing onto a shoulder or a thigh or any other part of someone else’s body while finding a seat on the dala-dala. They also don’t mind sitting on each other’s laps for the duration of the ride.

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around how lessons on biology and natural resources can be taught using only textbooks when ocean and wildlife are practically right outside the classroom.

It still baffles me how students go through their entire school life memorizing but not necessarily learning. Meanwhile, just down the road, students are outwitting the system by learning, making art, and picking up life skills in preparation for a world much bigger than their village.

Some of the Creative Solution graduates have become hotel employees, government workers, rangers, and teachers themselves.

In Zanzibar, in the Philippines, and in school around the developing world, there are students who find ways to exceed expectations and hungry minds waiting to be fed. There are teachers who find ways to outsmart the system. Sometimes all it needs is a little push. Other times it is a slow process that takes a lot of patience. Pole-pole. I learned it is much better than stop.

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